On this date a year ago, President Biden signed his Executive Order on “Strengthening American Leadership in Clean Cars and Trucks”, reaffirming his commitment to reinstate strong clean car standards and take strong steps to address the country’s leading source of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions – the transportation sector.
This action was significant. Cleaning up the transportation sector is key to addressing our climate crisis and meeting the nation’s emission reduction targets. Over the past five decades the adoption of emission and fuel efficiency standards has curbed emissions, saving drivers money at the pump and reducing our reliance on foreign oil.
Where Are We Now?
Since this declaration a year ago, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Department of Transportation (DOT) have acted on some of these orders, delivering re-strengthened emissions and fuel efficiency standards for cars and light trucks, and beginning the process of enacting stronger emissions standards for medium- and heavy-duty trucks.
It comes as no surprise that since President Biden’s Executive Order, automakers and battery producers have now announced that more and more of their planned global investments in clean technologies will be coming here, to be made in the U.S.A. And the Senate stands on the precipice of enacting a historic bill, the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022, a bill that has strong provisions for reducing consumers’ pain at the pump and supports clean vehicle manufacturing and energy security, while also cutting climate pollution.
In order to finish the job and deliver the carbon reductions that President Biden has promised the country and the world, the strongest possible long-term vehicle emissions standards are needed. Given the strong support from Congress, it's now time for the EPA and DOT to do their part and enact the strongest standards possible.
50% Electric Vehicle Sales in 2030
Perhaps one of the most notable and newsworthy provisions of the executive order was the goal that President Biden issued for half of new vehicle sales in 2030 to be zero emission vehicles – including battery electric vehicles, plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, or fuel cell electric vehicles.
Luckily, the federal clean cars emissions standards finalized by EPA last December will start to put the U.S. on a path toward achieving this sales target; but there is still urgency around the need to both continue to improve air quality and the need to continue taking protective climate action in order to achieve President Biden’s climate goals.
This is why NRDC and many of our partners are calling on EPA to act swiftly on the next round of clean car standards for car model years 2027 and beyond. In order for this next round of federal clean car standards to meet the moment, they should achieve the necessary pollution reductions by reducing carbon pollution from new vehicles sold in 2030 by at least 60% compared to today’s new vehicles. These standards should also be crafted with a level of ambition that exceeds the President’s goal of half of new vehicle sales being zero emission vehicles by 2030, and the standards should be finalized no later than next fall so that we can be guaranteed to lock in this progress.
Correcting Course Following the Trump Rollbacks
Additionally, the executive order also directed EPA and DOT to address the Trump Administration’s Safer Affordable Fuel Efficient (SAFE) Vehicles Rule, which involved incredibly harmful rollbacks of emission standards and fuel efficiency standards, as a part of President Trump’s deregulatory agenda.
SAFE Part One: EPA tackled part of this directive in March of this year, when it reinstated California’s waiver of preemption of the Clean Air Act to allow the state to enforce vehicle tailpipe standards stronger than the federal standards. In doing this, EPA reaffirmed California’s authority to set tailpipe emissions standards to address its public health and air-quality needs, and other states’ authority to adopt and enforce those standards.
Currently, EPA is in the process of considering additional waiver requests for California’s truck programs and based on the voluminous record, the agency must continue to follow historical precedent and act swiftly to grant these waiver requests in full.
SAFE Part Two: The second part of the Trump rollback was tackled by both EPA and DOT. As previously mentioned, EPA tackled their part of this directive last December, by finalizing revisions to their clean cars standards to reduce carbon emissions and put us back on track to provide a strong launch point for the Agency’s next phase of standards for car model years 2027 and beyond.
Additionally, in April of this year, DOT’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) addressed their part of this rollback by issuing new Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards that would require an industry-wide fleet average of approximately 49 miles-per-gallon (mpg) for passenger cars and light trucks in model year 2026, compared to the Trump Administration’s 32 mpg.
While this action was certainly necessary and a step in the right direction, the version of the rule finalized by NHTSA was not strongest version of the rule the agency proposed. Given this, there is still a path towards making the rule stronger, as NHTSA is statutorily obligated by the Energy Policy and Conservation Act of 1975 to set CAFE standards at the maximum feasible level the agency determines vehicle manufacturers can achieve in each model year, in order to improve energy conservation.
In addition to this, President Biden’s executive order also directed NHTSA/DOT to consider standards for fuel efficiency beyond 2027 for cars and trucks, and to do so by a similar timeframe as EPA’s emission standards.
We Still Need More Progress
It is a year later and there is still a lot more to do to move the needle on vehicle emission standards. In addition to the actions previous explored, the executive order also outlined several other rulemakings that President Biden tasked EPA and DOT to begin considering for cars and trucks.
Some of these have been accomplished with final rules published (as highlighted above), some are underway and are nearing finalization (i.e. the federal clean trucks rule), and others require EPA to get to work immediately on developing a proposal.
For example, EPA is currently hard at work to finalize a rule that responds to the executive order’s call to reduce carbon emissions and other harmful pollutants from heavy-duty trucks by the end of 2022. The last set of trucks standards were developed over two decades ago, so this new rule is long overdue. The aim of this rule is to reduce pollution from heavy-duty vehicles and engines starting in truck model year 2027.
Strong standards are vital, as emissions from heavy-duty vehicles—which range from U-Haul trucks, to school buses, to 18-wheelers—emanate from our roads, ports, and warehouses and into communities, homes, and playgrounds, poisoning our air and lungs. Across the country, tailpipe fumes envelop the communities living near freight activity, which are often—by design—low-income communities and communities of color.
EPA still has an opportunity to reject false industry arguments and finalize a rule, on time, that catches the federal level up to the states who have blazed ahead to protect their residents by adopting tough new vehicle emission standards – including the “Advanced Clean Trucks” and “Heavy-Duty Omnibus” rules.
Check out our blog to learn more about this clean trucks rule, where it fell short, and how EPA still has time to match state action.
EPA should also move swiftly to propose an additional GHG and multipollutant rule to build on the current clean trucks rule underway. This future rule should match state ambition by helping to accelerate the transition to zero-emission trucks – as seen on display by states adopting the Advanced Clean Trucks rule – especially since zero-emission electric trucks are the best available technology to reduce both harmful NOx and GHG emissions.
Last year, President Biden set out with a goal for the United States to demonstrate strong climate leadership. To achieve this, getting these remaining federal clean cars and trucks standards across the finish line must be a priority for this administration.
Without prioritizing these regulations, we fail to create the regulatory environment needed to lock-in and expand upon key domestic investments being considered by industry over this decade that benefit our workers and our nation. As we advance further into year two of President Biden’s commitments, we must not let up on our calls for the swift finalization of ambitious emission standards for cars and trucks. The clock on progress is ticking and we have no time to waste.